Archeologists Find 17,000-Year-Old Kangaroo Painting

February 24, 2021 Updated: February 24, 2021

An Australian rock painting has been dated at approximately 17,300 years old—the oldest known artwork still on the wall of a rock shelter in the country—in a finding that unlocks a greater understanding of humanity’s ancient past.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne (UM) and the University of Western Australia (UWA) found the kangaroo painted by ancestors of the Balanggarra people from the northeast Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The results were published on Feb. 22 in Nature Human Behaviour and form part of Australia’s largest rock art dating project.

To calculate its age, the archaeologists worked with traditional owners using radiocarbon dating based on the age of wasp nests over the paint.

Australia's oldest known rock shelter painting
Painting of a kangaroo which has been dated back 17,100 to 17,500 years ago based on wasp nests. (Supplied by University of Western Australia)

UWA archaeologist Sven Ouzman said the painting would be invaluable to understanding the history of Aboriginal culture.

“This iconic kangaroo image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in South East Asia dated to more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural link–and hinting at still older rock art in Australia,” Ouzman told the AAP.

“Dating rock art more accurately means we can better understand how Aboriginal people lived from their beginning right up to the present, where rock art is still being made, and country managed.

“Indeed, this rock painting makes us reconsider what it means to be ‘Australian’, combining everyone’s personal history with the deep time stewardship of the country by Aboriginal people.”

Researchers estimate that the first humans arrived in Australia at least 65,000 years ago. Known Aboriginal rock art has been dated to around 30,000 years ago, although unknown art is possibly much older.

“We don’t have the [dated] art, but we’ve found the tools that were used to make the art … close to 50,000 years ago,” Anthropological archaeologist Bruno David said.

The finding comes as archaeologists in Indonesia have found the world’s oldest rock art painting believed to date back to 45, 500 years ago, reports the BBC. The image, which depicts a wild pig still indigenous to the region today, was found at the Leang Tedongnge cave in a remote valley on the island of Sulawesi.

Maxime Aubert, the co-author of the report on the painting, said that the painting was created by humans who were much like us today.

“The people who made it were fully modern; they were just like us. They had all of the capacity and the tools to do any painting that they liked,” Aubert said.

Like the Australian archaeologists, Aubert also utilised a deposit on the painting to extrapolate its creation date.

He explained that he had used Uranium-series isotope dating on a calcite deposit on top of the painting to close in on the date and concluded that the deposit was at least 45,500 years old.

“But it could be much older because the dating that we’re using only dates the calcite on top of it,” he added.

Both the Kimberly region and the Indonesia province of Sulawesi are renowned for having some of the most prolific and oldest collections of rock art in the world, dating back tens of thousands of years.